Oral Geographies

By Benjamin Sacks

In the January 2011 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Miles Ogborn (Queen Mary) recounted the resilience of oral histories in the eighteenth-century British Caribbean. Historians have long relied on culturally varied mediums – including art, maps, prints, stories and music – to better understand the past. Geographers, Ogborn asserted, tend to work with a narrower body of material: maps and surveys, letters and formal accounts of land use and taxation. The importance of oral histories lie in their intrinsic, human element; oral narratives attached the individual to the land, its people and its future to a degree a map simply could not match. Highlighting the work of Sandra Gustafson (Notre Dame) and Carolyn Eastman (Texas-Austin), Ogborn argued that the imperial experience ‘created worlds in which oratory and speechifying [sic] both mirrored and created new social orders’. Gustafson added that colonial interactions made ‘verbal forms [of communication] into primary markers of cultural difference’. Excessive primary information can be difficult to wade through, but the importance of individual, non-academic accounts cannot be underestimated.

Oral histories take on almost countless forms. A conversation, recorded in the minutes of a town meeting, or a synopsis recorded in a letter. Behind gravestones one finds eulogies, epitaphs, verse, memories, music and stories from friends and families. Nor should the progression of tales through multiple familial generations be ignored; alterations in the story can be indicative of topographical or human geographic (i.e. migratory) changes on the landscape. Oral histories provide a colour to geography that has rarely, as of yet, been seen. With the inclusion of spoken narratives, more recent three-dimensional, digital maps also gain a ‘fourth-dimension’ – an interactive, human filter.

Miles Ogborn, ‘The Power of Speech: Orality, Oaths and Evidence in the British Atlantic World, 1650-1800‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 36 no. 1 (Jan., 2011): pp. 109-125.

Also see:

Richard C. Powell, ‘Becoming a Geographical Scientist: Oral Histories of Arctic Fieldwork‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 33 no. 4 (Oct., 2008): pp. 548-565.

Stephen Daniels, ‘Picturing Land and Life‘, Area 26 no. 2 (Jun., 1994): pp. 193-194.

Margaret Byron, ‘Using Audio: Visual Aids in Geography Research: Questions of Access and Responsibility‘, Area 25 no. 4 (Dec., 1993): pp. 379-385.

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